RTA, Metra, Cook County announce Access Pilot Program, extending reduced fares to eligible low-income Metra riders in 2024
January 16, 2024
Tina Fassett Smith, RTA Communications Director (312-913-3256, Tina.Smith@RTAChicago.org)
Michael Gillis, Metra Communications Director (312-322-6769, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Natalia Derevyanny, Cook County Director of Communications (312-718-4125, Natalia.Derevyanny@cookcountyil.gov)
Applications are now open for the pilot, which has an estimated total cost of $10 million, funded with $6 million from Cook County and the remainder from RTA and Metra. All Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient household members living within the six-county region qualify.
CHICAGO, JAN. 16, 2024 – The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), Metra, and Cook County jointly announce the Access Pilot Program, which will extend reduced fares on the entire Metra system to riders experiencing low incomes regionwide. All Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient household members living within the six-county region (Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will) are eligible. The pilot will use the same pricing as the existing reduced fare and zone structure in Metra’s 2024 budget.
The Access Program will launch on Feb. 1, and applications will be available beginning today, Jan. 16, in person, by phone and online at GetAccess.org. The pilot will last for 18 months, ending July 31, 2025. It is made possible through a partnership between the RTA, Cook County and Metra; Cook County will contribute $6 million with RTA and Metra also contributing funds to cover the administrative costs and any lost operating revenue. The pilot will help RTA and the transit agencies better understand issues of affordability and structure a permanent program if funding becomes available.
“Fully funding and expanding regional reduced fare and ride free programs increases access for those residents who need it most,” said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden. “The Access Pilot is a big step forward for our region to allow equitable and affordable transit access to SNAP recipients. This pilot expands upon RTA’s existing reduced fare and ride free programs and provides a seamless transition from the Fair Transit South Cook pilot. Making transit payments more seamless and affordable is a commitment RTA made in our regional transit strategic plan, ‘Transit is the Answer,’ which was co-created with input from thousands of riders, advocates and stakeholders.”
“We are excited to partner with the RTA and Cook County on this new pilot,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Jim Derwinski. “Advancing equity in transportation is one of the key goals of Metra’s new strategic plan, 'My Metra, Our Future,' and this program will go a long way toward helping Metra to meet that goal.”
The Access Program also directly supports one of the goals of the Cook County Transit Plan, which advocates implementing an income-based reduced fare program.
“Making our public transit system more affordable has been a cornerstone of Cook County’s commitment throughout the Fair Transit South Cook pilot,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “Today marks an important milestone as we tailor this benefit to riders who need it most throughout Cook County and the broader region. The Access Program aligns with my administration’s commitment to achieving equity, as outlined in both the Cook County Transit Plan and Policy Roadmap.”
All the region’s stakeholders are eager to see the Access pilot expand to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Pace and are seeking the funding needed for that expansion. This pilot is currently only valid for Metra, and it comes as the Fair Transit South Cook program ends on Jan. 31. Fair Transit South Cook provided reduced fares to all passengers on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines regardless of income level or need. The Access Pilot Program expands this benefit to the entire Metra system, while adding an eligibility requirement for those with the lower incomes, as defined by SNAP eligibility.
How to get Access
All SNAP recipient household members living within the six-county region are eligible for the Access Program. The total number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits in the region in 2020 was approximately 1.2 million. Of those, approximately 777,000 (63 percent) are adults.
Beginning Jan. 16, riders can apply at GetAccess.org, by calling RTA Customer Service at 312-913-3110 or by visiting one of 62 registration sites in person. The RTA will ensure adequate increased staffing levels and provide accessible documents for applications in-person and online. Once the customer is found eligible, the process for receiving and using the permit will mirror the existing free and reduced fare programs, currently taking 7-10 business days from the date of application. The Access Pilot Program launches on Feb. 1.
Other fare programs
The RTA’s current Reduced Fare program is a federally mandated program providing approximately half-priced fare across all three regional transit operators — CTA, Metra and Pace — for people with disabilities and adults 65 and older. The Ride Free program is a State of Illinois-mandated, means-tested program providing free public transportation for people with disabilities and adults 65 and older who qualify for the Illinois Department on Aging’s Benefit Access Program. The RTA operates the eligibility process for both fare programs, and there are currently 263,000 eligible customers in total for both.
The fiscal cliff and fully funding and expanding fare programs
The regional transit system is facing at least a $730 million operating budget gap beginning in 2026 when federal COVID-19 relief money is projected to run out and as ridership remains below pre-pandemic levels. However, the Access Pilot Program is not anticipated to have an impact on the budget gap.
Making fares more seamless and affordable is a commitment RTA made in its regional transit strategic plan, “Transit is the Answer.” Central to expanding free and reduced fare programs is first understanding the program administrative cost and lost operating revenue borne by the transit agencies. This pilot is structured to begin answering these questions, while providing a reduced fare Metra ride to residents of the Chicago region experiencing low incomes that is a direct benefit to the qualified riders, minimizes the burden to participate and administer from a rider and agency perspective, and can be quickly implemented.
About the RTA
The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is the unit of local government created to oversee finances, to secure funding, and to conduct transit planning for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace. The RTA manages these three Service Boards’ five-year capital programs. Also, to help riders with disabilities and older adults across Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties, the agency issues Reduced Fare and Ride Free permits, assesses eligibility for ADA Paratransit service, and oversees specialized travel training. For more, visit www.RTAChicago.org.
Metra is an essential resource that safely and reliably connects individuals to the things that matter most in their lives — their work, their homes and their families.
About Cook County
Cook County is the second largest county in the United States, representing 5.2 million residents in Illinois. The President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners is the chief executive officer (CEO) of Cook County and oversees the Offices Under the President (OUP) which includes the Bureau of Administration (BOA) and Department of Transportation and Highways (DoTH).